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The Nation: Health Minister David Clark

On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Health Minister David Clark

It was a big week in mental health, with four major announcements.

One was a new suicide prevention strategy, which the Māori Council has labelled a ‘kick in the guts’.

The Māori suicide rate is double the national rate.

Simon Shepherd asked Health Minister David Clark why he chose not to target Māori in the new strategy.

David Clark: Good morning. It is a hugely challenging area. Our suicide statistics have been too high for far too long, and they've been going in the wrong direction for the last five years. And Māori have been, in particular, badly affected. And of course, behind every one of those statistics is a personal story of tragedy. There is a lot in the strategy that is focused on making sure that we're supporting Māori — around the research, one of the founding documents was gifted by a Māori group. And there has been plenty of consultation along the way to make sure that it is responsive, our strategy, to the needs of Māori.

Simon Shepherd: And yet the Māori Council describes it as ‘a shiny new toy with Māori locked out.’ Why would they say that, if you say that you have done all this consultation?

Well, the majority of Māori that I've heard from have welcomed the strategy. They see it as a real step forward. There is resource going into supporting new Māori and Pacific responses. There is money going into supporting the bereaved, to make sure that they have counselling available — 2,500 counselling sessions a year, because we know that they are particularly vulnerable. And of course it won't please everybody, but most I'm hearing from are very pleased that we have a strategy in place now and that we can get on with our response.

Why are you not taking a more targeted approach, I guess is the question. Because men are three times more likely than women to take their own lives via suicide. The rainbow community is twice as likely to consider suicide. It's an overall strategy, not targeted.

Look, I'd push back on that. We do think, fundamentally, that every life matters, and so we don't want there to be a wrong door for people to come through when they're seeking help. The strategy itself looks at everything from prevention, well-being in the community, interventions, prevention, postvention. It's a strategy that looks across all areas. And frankly, we've also got to look even more broadly, and so the moves we are making in primary care, to make sure that people with mild to moderate needs in anxiety or depression can access help for free in their communities, to stop small problems becoming big problems, is also a part of what we're doing.

OK, so you have a new director to be appointed to the Suicide Prevention Office. We understand that that person is Carla na Nagara. Can you confirm that?

No, I'm not able to confirm that. That appointment is one that's made by the Ministry of Health directly. It's not one that ministers make decisions on.

All right. Let's talk about the Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission. You announced the members this week. There is some concern in the sector that there aren't enough people on it with lived experience.

Well, there are people with lived experience on that.

Well, one, isn't there, as far as we can see?

Kelly Pope, who is a young woman from Christchurch, has lived experiences. Others have experience close to them. And certainly all have been heavily involved in the sector. But I don't want to speak for them on their experiences. It is, I believe, a panel that looks across New Zealand, represents a broad range of people. And from the sector, we've had nothing but praise for the broad range of people that are on there and the respect that they come with.

OK. And this Friday you announced extra support for the victims of the Christchurch attacks, in terms of their mental health — new funding. Is this a way, though, of avoiding reforming ACC to include mental trauma? You seem to be just dumping money where the problem exists, but what happens next time if you don't reform ACC?

Look, ACC falls outside of my area of ministerial responsibility. But the response for Christchurch has been quite targeted, deliberate, making sure that we do some practical things, like make sure that GP visits can be extended for those who are experiencing trauma, making sure the trauma support, more generally, is adequately funded, making sure community resilience is supported, and so on. There is a range of measures in there that we know will make a real difference for those who are suffering following the March 15 events.

All right. Just finally, if I could quickly ask you about the measles outbreak. 1,200 cases now. That's the same number as in all of America. Is that somewhat embarrassing, as Health Minister?

Look, there's been a global outbreak of measles — 300% up from last year. We've had a huge uptake of vaccine. We've put out around 70,000 more vaccines so far this year than we did last year. I'm really impressed with the way the public is coming forward. We want to focus on the under-4 age group — 15 months-4 years old, 12 months old in the case of Auckland, to make sure people do get immunised. It's the one thing that people can do to make sure that they are protected. And our immunisation rates are not what they should be. And that goes back a long way. They've been hovering around 90% for years and years. But people can do something about it. They can go and get immunised, and they are coming forward, and that's a good thing.

Does that mean that you need to launch a nationwide immunisation catch-up campaign to get that immunisation rate up to that 95%?

The Honourable Julie Anne Genter leads on the area of immunisation more generally for us as a government. But I know that's something she is looking at very closely, because we do want to raise our immunisation rates to make sure that we aren't vulnerable to outbreaks, as has happened in Auckland.

So, is there any possibility of that happening?

Look, I think that we need to look at what we need to do to get our immunisation rates up around the country. And I know that I am very interested in seeing that. I know Julie Anne Genter is very interested in seeing how we can make sure we raise our immunisation rates around the country. It's something that is being pursued right now.

Health Minister David Clark, thank you very much for your time.

Thanks, Simon.

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